Friday, March 22, 2013

A printing primer


While most of the current excitement in book publishing involves ebooks, most books are still DTBs (dead tree books) and are printed on paper. Here's a primer on printing.

1.                   Print on demand (and ebooks) remove much of the risk from book publishing. Because POD’d books don’t exist until demand has been demonstrated, there is no danger of spending money to print books that will not be sold. With POD, potential reading material is stored as digital files in computers, not as complete books in cartons or on a shelf.

Books cost more to print this way compared to conventional offset printing, but there are few or no unwanted books to be stored, shipped or disposed of. In the early days of self-publishing, it was common for authors to have hundreds of unsold books getting mildewed or becoming mouse food.
2.                  Offset printing presses are generally used for print runs of hundreds or thousands of books. It was not economical to print just one or a few books at a time until the recent development of high-speed laser printers which print and bind hundreds of pages in a minute.

A book manuscript that is going to be offset-printed requires fairly complex preparation including the production of printing plates. Offset presses use ink that can be printed on a wide variety of paper types. Digital printers use toner that bonds to pages with heat and will adhere to fewer types of paper.

Early POD books were inferior to offset-printed books, but quality has improved continuously. Today’s best POD books look as good as offset books, with the possible exception of photograph reproduction. But POD is generally good enough and getting better all the time. 

3.                  Prep­aration for POD is much simpler than for offset, but per-book cost is higher; and there is not much saving as the quantity increases.  With offset, preparation cost can be amortized over varying quantities of books, so the per-book cost goes down as quantity goes up. A 300-page paperback printed by offset could cost $1.84 each for 1,000 copies or $1.17 each for 10,000, or even less for 100,000. With POD, one copy could cost $5.40. There’s usually a 5% discount for 50 or more and higher discounts for larger quantities—but POD prices never match offset prices. 

4.                  The two companies that provide most on-demand printing and book distribution for self-publishers are Lightning Source (“LS” or “LSI”) and CreateSpace (“CS”). LS can provide more income per book. However, it’s less expensive to start a book and make corrections with CS—and CS is easier for beginners to work with. CS is owned by Both companies can provide automatic book availability to, Barnes & Noble and many other booksellers.

You’ll probably encounter online criticism of both LS and CS. Each one has enthusiastic supporters and detractors. I’ve used both companies and can’t say that one is consistently better than the other. Most books from both companies are good enough, and both companies make occasional bad books.

The worst production error I ever saw was so funny that I kept the book rather than return it. The cover of my book was wrapped around the pages of another book, from another publisher.

Fortunately, errors like this don’t happen often—but be alert. 

5.                  It’s common for self-publishing authors to have their books printed on demand as orders come in. However, if you are reasonably certain that you can sell hundreds or thousands of books per year, you can pay much less per book with offset printing. Offset can be good if you have a way to sell lots of books yourself (such as from your website or after seminars or speeches).

Lower printing cost will let you charge less for your books, make more profit per book—or both.

Lower price is not the only reason to print offset. Here are some more:

·      Wider choice of book sizes

·      Wider choice of papers

·      Better photographs

·      Better color

·      Fancier covers and jackets

·      Inserts such as special paper or CDs

6.                 Some offset printers can provide distribution to booksellers; others will ship books to you, only. Bookmasters provides a wide range of printing and distribution services, and author service packages. Aeonix maintains an extensive online list of book printers. Jon Kremer has a large list, too.
7.                  If you need a lot of books, you may save money by having them printed in China or India. If you do, you probably should hire an experienced expert to oversee the project.
8.                 Even if your books will be printed in the USA, a “print broker” may steer you to printers you never heard of, offering a wider range of services. Even though brokers make a profit, they may generate so much money for the printers they work for that they may save you money. Some brokers are listed here. A broker can help you prepare a “request for proposals” (RFP) and evaluate the bids you receive. Some brokers are shady. Check references.
9.                 Keep in mind that although your cost of printing each book is less if you order 5,000 at one time, they’ll have to be transported and stored. Freight companies and warehouses have to be paid. You can’t put 5,000 books under your bed or in your car.

Book printers, distributors and wholesalers often provide storage services and will ship books to booksellers or to you as needed. 

10.              (The following is an example, not an endorsement.) Here’s what Mill City Press says about storage fees: Each quarter pallet of space costs $4.50 per month. As your inventory diminishes, your books will occupy less pallet space, and your storage fees will be reduced accordingly. Each pallet is 4’ x 4’ x 4’. In order to determine how many books will fill up a pallet, you’ll need to determine your “carton quantity” (how many books fill a carton). Each pallet holds about 48 standard-sized cartons of books. If your carton quantity is 25 books, you’ll be able to store 1,200 books per pallet.
11.                Many companies that do printing—even copy centers—want you to think that they can print books. Some merely send the work to other companies and tack on a percentage for being a matchmaker. Others print out a batch of 8.5 by 11-inch pages and staple them together like a term paper. If a company says it prints “books,” examine some samples.

A nearby branch of Alphagraphics (not really a book printer) quoted me $1,300 to produce 100 copies of a 300-page paperback. That’s about three times what I can pay to a POD book specialist. 

12.               Bookbinding is the attachment of covers (“binders”) to book pages. Binding of hardcover books is a specialty. Some book printers bind their own books and some printers use other companies for binding. 
Choose the appropriate binding for your topic, audience, book length and price.

1. Most how-to books, and many self-published books of all genres, are perfect-bound paperbacks (soft covers).

2. If your book’s price is $24.95 or higher, many people will expect a hardcover book, probably with a dust jacket. Hardcovers cost more to manufacture than soft covers. You can select special cloth or paper, embossing, see-through cut-outs, foil, metallic ink, glued-on holograms, leather, fur or feathers (well, maybe not fur or feathers).

3. A casewrap is a less-expensive hardcover binding without a dust jacket.

4. Instruction manuals and cookbooks are more useful if they can lie flat when open and are often constructed with a comb or spiral binding. Unfortunately, these two binding methods are fragile and pages may become detached if the book is used frequently.

5. Thin books up to about 48 pages are often saddle-stitched. These books have no spines and the pages are folded and then stapled at the fold, through the cover.

13.               If you are comparing prices for book printing, you need to understand how paper thickness is described. has a good explanation: “The basis weight of a paper is the designated fixed weight of 500 sheets, measured in pounds, in that paper’s basic sheet size. It is important to note that the basic sheet size is not the same for all types of paper.”

A common size for cover stock is 20 by 26 inches. A common size for interior pages is 25 by 38 inches. Many papers are available in rolls as well as sheets. Heavier paper is thicker paper. Unless a special deal is available, thicker paper costs more. A typical cover stock for POD paperbacks is “90 lb.” A typical white page stock is “50 lb.” The “lb” is often expressed as “#.”

POD authority Morris Rosenthal wrote: “There are two standard systems for determining paper weight. One is used for the standard bond papers you buy for your copy machine or laser printer, the other used by printers. To translate the familiar 20# or 24# weight you are familiar with to printer weights, multiply by 2.5. The 20# weight is equivalent to a 50# printer weight, the 24# weight is equivalent to the 60# weight. Either weight is fine for trade paperbacks. Mass market paperbacks often use much lighter weight recycled paper, earning the name ‘pulp fiction.’”
This page is adapted from my 1001 Powerful Pieces of Author Advice.

Old printing press illustration from iStockPhoto. Binding illustrations from Thanks.


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